Two fast laps: the exciting evolution of Peter Bol

Nagmeldin “Peter” Bol was once a reluctant runner, more at home on a basketball court than a track. Now, the Sudanese-born athlete is a force in the 800 metre, and laser-focused on making his second Australian Olympic team. Myles Gough explores how Bol has come to embrace his true calling.

Peter Bol is straight-up. There’s no clearer example of this honesty than when the Sudanese-Australian reflects on his Olympic debut at the 2016 games. 

Bol — then 22 — was proudly donning the green-and-gold in Rio de Janeiro. He was toeing the line against the world’s fastest 800-metre runners, on the biggest international stage, and he didn’t recognise a single competitor. 

“I had no idea who I was racing against, because it was just five years after I started [running],” he recalls. “I was more excited to see the basketball players in Rio than the runners, because I didn’t know — I had no idea who they were.” 

This isn’t a knock on Bol. He was locked-in. In the 800m — when the gun goes — there’s no time to think, let alone worry, about the credentials of the person beside you.  

“You want to be automatic,” he explains. “If someone drops, you want to cover that move. You don’t want to think about it, because if you think about it, you’ve already lost half-a-second and now you gotta pick it up faster, until you die.” 

He repeats that learned wisdom:

“You have to be automatic. Cover moves, come super confident, and just go. Run your own race.” 

Bol doesn’t make this admission — about not recognising his world-class peers — to suggest he was under prepared; he makes it to reveal something more intimate, and complicated, about his relationship with the sport. 

For Bol, athletics is far from a natural love affair. 

“I don’t really relate to running,” he tells RunCreature. “When I was younger, I honestly did not enjoy it. I didn’t even enjoy watching races, because I did not come to the sport out of passion. It was out of, ‘This is what you’re good at, maybe you should try it’. It wasn’t something I wanted to try, at the start.” 

In the last 18 months, however, this mentality has begun shifting. He and his teammate, Joseph Deng — the Australian 800m record holder — are intent on becoming more consistent: cementing their places in the upper echelons of the world rankings, building a high-performance culture in Australia, and racing at the next Olympics, whenever that might be.  

Bol knows — to achieve these goals — he has to become a more engaged student of his sport: “If I’m going to get better,” he says, “then I’m going to have to do this. I’m now starting to watch more races.” 

“I still have a long way to go, I think, in terms of completely falling in love with the sport. But I’m getting there, slowly.”

Dreaming about hoops, high-tops, and jump shots

Watch Peter Bol run two, blisteringly-fast laps of a track, and it’s hard not to be instantly envious: the smoothness of his stride, the way he seems to effortlessly glide across the ground, the fierce determination and explosiveness with which he powers home, despite the evident hurt on his grimacing face.  

He’s a natural. Born to run. Made to compete at the highest level. 

You’d be forgiven for assuming he grew-up on a track. But that’s not the case, and the 26-year-old is the first to admit his interest never really centred on running: “I didn’t even think of running as a sport,” he says. “It was just something we had to do in school.” 

Lightning quick, coordinated, and explosive, Bol has always gravitated towards sport. He also boasts a humble-yet-hyper-competitiveness, which has resulted, in large part, from being the middle of five brothers.

When Bol’s family came to Australia from Sudan in 2004, by way of a four-year stop in Egypt, it was sport that helped the 10-year-old bridge cultural and linguistic divides with his new classmates Down Under. Sports were a welcome distraction from the challenges of building a new life, and adapting to his new community of Toowoomba, in Queensland.  

“For the first year, it was hard. I had to be in a separate class to learn English,” he remembers. “But at the same time, you forget about what you have to learn, and you begin to appreciate what you have.”

“There were all these new, different sports we were playing at school, all these activities. I responded to sport — to the things I liked, and I ignored what I didn’t.”

Early on, soccer was his sport of choice (he’s still a loyal Manchester United supporter). Later on, it was basketball and boxing. 

In his early teens, Bol’s dreams of sporting glory involved hoops, high-tops, fade away jump shots and heavy bags; not asphalt tracks or racing spikes. His idols were Kobe Bryant, Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather (all are known for their extreme self-confidence — arguably to a fault — but also their relentless work ethic and for being champions in their sports). 

“I would watch all Floyd Mayweather’s matches,” he recalls. “I would watch Kobe highlights in my spare time. It was never like that with athletics.” 

While his focus is now the track, Peter Bol still maintains his love for basketball. Photo supplied. Credit Sara Mohamed

Compulsory x-country kick starts a world-class career

At age 14, when his family moved across the country to Perth, it was Bol’s skill on the basketball court that earned him a scholarship to attend St Norbert College, a private catholic school.

He was a swift-moving point guard who could dunk by Year 10. “I always had hops,” says Bol, who stands at 178 centimetres, or 5 feet 10 inches. He modelled his game on the Miami Heat superstar, Dwyane Wade, one of the most prolific N.B.A. scorers (and best shooting guards) of the last 25 years. 

(I speculate, during our interview, that he must have been a stand-out in Western Australia at the time; Bol modestly deflects: “I was okay,” he laughs. “I could have been much better, that’s for sure.”)   

While at St Norbert, Bol had to compete in compulsory cross-country races. He was a reluctant participant, but he was fast, and when he stood on the start line, his competitiveness took over.

As a 15-year-old, he easily won his school race, and came second at a regional event. It was during this cross country season, he recalls, that his talents caught the attention of Helen (Moore) Leahy, a teacher at the college and the head of his house. She pulled him aside, afterwards, and asked if he wanted to take the sport more seriously; to begin training outside of school.

“I looked at her and said, ‘Nah’,” recalls Bol, with a laugh. 

The whole running thing might have ended there. Fortunately, Leahy was persistent. There was also something that continued to bother Bol. 

“I was so mad for coming second, because first was the only option,” he tells RunCreature. “That’s what it was like with my brothers.”  

The following year, the same story: he again won his school race, and again came second at the regionals — to the same runner. “I was like, ‘why the hell does this kid keep beating me?’” he laughs. 

He remembers Leahy, rather bluntly, explaining the reason: That kid does athletics. It was an aha moment for Bol. If he wanted to win — to be the best — he needed to train like a runner. 

This time, Leahy didn’t ask if he wanted to take running more seriously, she got the ball rolling. She brought Bol’s mum and dad into the school to ask if they would be okay with their son starting athletics training. When they agreed, she set about getting him registered with a local club, and connected with a coach. 

“She basically signed me up,” recalls Bol. He now understands how important that intervention was: “As a teacher, I think she kinda knew that I wanted to do it, maybe, but that I didn’t know how to get to it.” 

Leahy also put Bol in contact with her late father, Brian Moore. Her father didn’t know much about running, she says, but he was an avid sportsman who wanted to help, and he became an instant mentor.  

“[Brian] helped me buy a few shoes to get started… and then once a month or fortnight, we would catch up and just speak. That helped a lot,” recalls Bol. “I’m just starting to realise that now.” 

A timely intervention and friendship

Helen (Moore) Leahy fights back tears when she talks about Peter Bol’s “unique” relationship with her late father, Brian Moore, who passed away in 2015. In a word, she describes her father’s desire to help Bol — and his actions — as altruistic. “There was nothing in it for him but seeing this boy shine and develop and grow into this amazing runner,” she says.

Just like Moore did with his daughter, when she was swimming competitively in her younger years, he kept a meticulous file-folder on Bol. “He recorded all of his times, and watched all of his races, until he became too ill to continue,” Leahy says. “It wasn’t just a case of signing a check so Peter could buy shoes, dad was emotionally invested… so much so, that Peter was a pallbearer at his funeral. They had an amazing relationship; it was a friendship.”

“We still stay up late and stream all his runs,” Leahy says. “My son is now watching and he’ll be there screaming at the T.V.” Even her mum, at age 89, is still asking about Bol and watching races when she can. If her dad was still alive, Leahy has no doubt they would have travelled to Rio and would be making travel plans to visit Tokyo in 2021. “Dad always saw Peter for the determined young man he was — a young man who had already faced so many challenges in his life. He’d be so incredibly proud of Peter’s accomplishments, but I don’t think he’d be surprised.”  

Peter Bol standing with his friend Brian Moore, who passed away in 2015. Photo supplied by Peter Bol.

The first 800-metre race was a ‘vicious’ shock

In his novel The Other, American writer David Guterson describes the 800m race as: “approximately two minutes of self-mortification and private crucifixion”.

His words capture the punishing nature of the distance: the torment that almost always accompanies two fast laps. For the uninitiated, the under-trained, or the foolhardy, the 800m can suck the life from your legs with startling swiftness. It can leave you keeled over in agony, breathless, rapidly gasping air into burning lungs. 

Going even further, Guterson attempted to shed light on the slightly unnerving mindset of the athletes who (willingly) compete in this event: “They want to do battle with suffering. It’s the trauma they want.”

Bol didn’t choose the 800m. Not at first. It was Leahy who called him up. she needed an extra runner to fill the school’s roster.

Up to that point, Bol had only ever run cross country. He’d never raced on a track and had no idea what he was getting into, nor the suffering he was being asked to endure.  

“I said, ‘How many laps is that?’ and she said, ‘Two’. And I said to myself, ‘Surely, I can run two laps’.”  

He was starting in the second lane. When the gun went, he bolted. He didn’t know he could cross over to the inside, so he ran three-quarters of the race rigidly glued to lane two. It was the first time Bol had truly entered a so-called “lactic state” and he remembers not really understanding the pain: “It was pretty vicious.” 

Nevertheless, Bol won the race, handily, clocking a time of 2 minute and 5 seconds (2:05). 

“It was amazing,” Leahy tells RunCreature. “He was a beautiful runner, and he won by miles — 20 or 30 metres. Probably more. I then turned around and asked him to run the 400, and he blitzed that, too.”

This was something Bol could do better than most. Even if he didn’t love it, it was something he could master, with focus and dedication. He began to take the 800m seriously. And after just four months of training, he shaved 10 seconds off his time.

All of a sudden, Bol was an 18-year-old running 1:55. 

A year later, at age 19, he cemented his status as a bonafide star of Australian track and field when he won the 2013 National Junior Championships in Perth in a time of 1:48.90. It remains the fastest 800m time ever run by an Australian junior athlete at the national championships.

Capturing the attention of a high-calibre coach

Despite his unmistakable talent, there was a perception that Bol was inconsistent. A blazing-fast race might be followed with a mediocre performance. It was enough for selectors to keep him off several national teams. He missed the 2014 World Junior Championships in Oregon, the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing. 

Bol remembers this period as being the lowest point of his running career. 

But his incredible speed was still turning heads. Eventually, Bol crossed paths with Melbourne-based coach Justin Rinaldi. A 1:47 runner, Rinaldi went to college in the U.S. and ran on the track circuit in Europe.

When he first encountered Bol, he was coaching Alexander Rowe — a former Australian champion who was fresh-off equalling the 800m national record (1:44.40*) at a 2014 race in Monaco. (*Now tied for the second fastest Australian time). 

Rinaldi invited Bol to participate in a mini training camp he was facilitating in Melbourne in January 2015. The rising star accepted. He travelled across the country and, for the first time, experienced truly world-class training up-close. 

“Peter was a promising athlete, and I think he wanted to make that next step, which was the Olympics in 2016,” Rinaldi tells RunCreature. “He had the talent, it just had to be nurtured and redirected and focused on that goal… Eventually I said, ‘Look, if you want to make that step, you should make the move across to Melbourne and train with Alex’.”

Leaving Perth, and his close-knit family, to live and train in Melbourne was a big deal for Bol. It meant going all-in; devoting his life to the sport. A sport he was still uncertain whether he loved.  

As he weighed-up that decision, he was selected to represent Australia at the 2015 Summer University Games in South Korea. It was his first national team. The so-far-elusive opportunity to represent Australia on the world stage had arrived.

But before accepting the invite, Bol reached out to Rinaldi for guidance. The coach suggested he’d be better served travelling to Europe, where he could compete against faster athletes, and get more races under his belt. 

Bol listened, and travelled instead to Europe. For some of that time, he stayed in Paris, with extended family from Sudan. The experience of racing overseas proved he was capable of competing against the best in the world, and opened his eyes to the opportunities that athletics could afford him. 

“I realised, without athletics, I would never be here, in Paris,” he says. “All of this from running two laps. If I could just run two laps fast each year and be in Europe, so be it.”

Taking a leap of faith and moving to Melbourne

When Bol says it, it sounds so simple: run two laps fast, and presto, the world becomes your oyster.

Winning, and being the best he could be, was still the primary motivation for Bol; but travelling, and seeing the world, became a close second. To make that reality happen — year-in and year-out — would require hard work; an unwavering commitment to the sport. He needed to go all in.

In November 2015, he made the move to Melbourne. It was a leap of faith, both in himself and the program Rinaldi had established. And it was a declaration: he was a serious athlete. 

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“It was a real struggle when he first got over here,” Rinaldi remembers.

“He didn’t know a lot of people. He didn’t have a job and he didn’t have a lot of funding… he struggled just finding money for rent, a place to live, even buying a bed and some furniture… But it showed me how committed he was to reaching that goal of making the Olympics.”

Justin Rinaldi

Bol didn’t disappoint: within about half-a-year of working with his new coach, he clocked a 1:45.78 at a race in Germany. An Olympic qualifier. He had secured his ticket to the Rio Games. 

In the years since, Melbourne has become a de-facto home; Bol loves the city, and with a five-year Adidas pro-contract to his name, his financial situation has greatly improved from those earliest days. He’s a full-time athlete.

But as anyone who has lived apart from family can attest, there are difficult days, and complex emotional tides to navigate. 

“I think that’s one thing he struggles with,” says Rinaldi. “He knows he has to be in Melbourne to get the best out of his athletics, but his heart’s in Perth. He misses seeing his brothers and his sister grow up.” 

“I think Peter’s parents expect him to be a role model and to look after his siblings, especially because he’s been successful… But I think, sometimes, his parents feel he has to be back in Perth to do that.”   

From left: Peter Bol with his father Abdalla, his brother Izeldin, his mother Hanan, and his brother Sham. Photo supplied by Peter Bol.  

A long journey: Sudan to Egypt to Australia

Bol’s parents met in Khartoum, the capital city of the Republic of Sudan. A metropolis of more than 5 million people, north Sudan’s largest city — and centre of government — sits at the convergence point of the Blue and White Nile rivers.

Bol’s mother, Hanan Kuku, is Nubian — an ethnic and linguistic group native to the country’s northern region, and to southern Egypt.

However, his father, Abdalla Bol, is Dinka.

The Dinka are a tribe from southern Sudan, who were traditionally cattle farmers. They would move their herds to river-side pastures during the dry season, and return to more permanent farming settlements in savanna forests during the wet months. Bol’s parents cannot communicate in their first languages, and so speak to one another in Arabic. 

Nagmeldin (Peter) Bol was born in Khartoum in 1994, at the height of the Second Sudanese Civil War — a horrific, 22-year-long conflict. From its outbreak in 1983, until the signing of a tenuous peace treaty in 2005, an estimated 2 million people died from fighting, famine and diseases.

A further 4 million people were displaced at least once. Thousands of children were recruited as soldiers into armed forces; it’s a vexing problem that persists to this day in Sudan.  

During the conflict, as religious and ethnic tensions heightened, southern Dinka people were increasingly persecuted; their traditional ways of life came under threat, and they were targeted by northern government-backed militias. As terror spread in the south, resistance forces mounted. As a result, many people fled their villages; often they ended up in Khartoum, as refugees in their own country.

Bol doesn’t know the specific details of how his mother and father met; and he’s still untangling the complex reasons for why they were compelled to leave Sudan and seek refuge. But he knows, with absolute certainty, it was to give him and his siblings a better life. A future not haunted, or interrupted, by war, or its legacy.    

It was his father who left Sudan first. He travelled to Egypt in 1999, and found a job in Cairo, ironing clothing, says Bol. He found a suitable apartment, and paved the way for his family to join him a year later.

In 2004, after four years of living —and attending school — in Egypt, Bol and his family were allowed to come to Australia. They were among a wave of more than 20,000 Sudanese people who settled in Australia on humanitarian grounds between 1997 and 2007.

For Bol, the move didn’t feel as confronting as he now realises it must have been for his parents and older siblings: “Until they kind of communicate with you, what they really went through [in Sudan] and how hard it was to get here, you [as a kid] don’t really know.” 

More recently, Bol has begun talking to his parents about their migration story and the sacrifices they made.  He says he wishes he learned about it earlier. “I appreciate my parents a lot more for it, and I respect their decisions a lot more. They’ve seen a lot more and experienced the world through a different lens than I have.” 

“I just respect everything they do. You realise, there’s a reason behind everything. And you only learn that through having conversations.” 

Living in Melbourne, and also Europe during competition season, Bol misses those conversations; he misses his family. But he knows, there’s a reason for his being away from them. 

Black Lives Matter and social justice

With the world in the grips of a pandemic, a powerful and vital anti-black racism movement was taking shape. In the United States, Australia, and globally, people were taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism — often in direct defiance of social distancing orders in their locales. The ignition point for this reinvigorated civil rights movement in the U.S. was the murder of George Floyd — an unarmed African-American man — by a Minnesota police officer.

In Australia, the focal point centred on Indigenous deaths in custody; but protesters were also concerned about the offshore detention of refugees and racism in our social institutions more broadly. Bol was in Western Australia, living with his family, and he attended a gathering in Perth with his sister. “This is a big issue everywhere,” the Sudanese-born athlete says. “And to show up in the midst of Covid shows this is something that needs to be urgently addressed. People are willing to compromise their health for justice. And that’s beautiful. To see all these people come together, and want to work together. This is the first step to change. You have to have these conversations, and you have to be brave. People have had enough.”

As an Olympian, Bol has used his platform to support community development work, speaking at schools and working with young people, many from refugee communities. He says he hopes to continue to inspire Australian youth, from all backgrounds, to chase their dreams and find their passions. And when it comes to social justice, Bol says he’ll continue to “stand up and speak out when something is unfair” and have tough conversations with people to encourage empathy.

Big dreams are within reach in Australia 

When Yosef Asresse, 24, was introduced to Bol by a mutual friend, they were both studying at Curtin University in Perth.

Bol was completing his construction management degree and Yosef was studying business administration. Both were into soccer (Asresse played at an elite level before fracturing an ankle and tearing an anterior cruciate ligament); both enjoyed reading about personal development; and both were born in Sudan.  

Their shared heritage made them fast friends: “His mum is like my mum,” says Asresse. “If I didn’t have a roof over my head, and didn’t have a family, she’d have a bed ready. That’s the kind of mum she is. When I first went to [Peter’s] house, it was like, his brothers are my brothers. It was a simple click.” 

“You can see why Peter performs at such a high level,” he says. “It’s because he has that loving family to support him.”   

When Bol comes back to Perth, he always catches up with Asresse. Sometimes they meet for coffee, sometimes they visit open houses and auctions. (When I speak to Asresse, I double-check this last point: Did you say you go to real estate auctions? For fun? He confirms I heard him correctly: “We go and check out houses and stuff, big property items.”)

“When we talk, it’s a lot of dream-building,” Asresse tells RunCreature. 

“Like, ‘Where do we want to go? What do we want to achieve? Why can’t we have these kinds of properties?’ It’s talking about ‘What’s stopping us from being the best we can be? Why can’t we help our families? Why can’t our families be in these houses? Why can’t we get them here?’”

The future looks bright for Peter Bol. Photo supplied by Peter Bol. Credit Sara Mohamed

Like Bol, Asresse’s family left Sudan seeking a better life, with greater opportunities. He understands the sacrifices his parents made; and the pressure on his generation to step-up and make those sacrifices worthwhile.

It’s pressure both young men embrace: “We grew up in Sudan, from a third world country, where we had no options or a chance for anything. And our parents brought us here,” Asresse says. “That’s all they needed to do. Now it’s our time to help them out when we need to.” 

“We have a work ethic that’s second to none,” he says confidently. “There’s nothing we can’t do in Australia.”

Asresse has seen the evolution, and manifestation, of that work ethic — that hunger to succeed and be the best — in his friend. 

“Peter is not complacent. He’s always willing to learn. He doesn’t have this mentality of bravado, or ego. His mentality is always growth-mindset,” he says. “Peter goes to every single event to learn, to meet new people… He’ll talk to the barman, he’ll talk to the person cleaning the floor… Every single person that Peter meets, for him, it’s an opportunity.”

“He doesn’t have the mentality ‘I’ve made it’ — it’s almost like, ‘Okay, where can I go now? How can I get to my next level?’” 

Yosef Asresse

Refocusing after ‘big stage’ frustrations

Bol has the tools to be a top international athlete. But so far, on the biggest stages, the perfect race has proven elusive.

In Rio, he ran a disappointing 1:49.36, finishing 6th in his heat and failing to make the Olympic final. At the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London, he ran 1:49.65, which was only good for 7th in the heat.

He hoped for a chance at redemption at the 2018 Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast, but it slipped away after he suffered a stress fracture in his tibia.  

Rather than discouraging Bol, these performances have reinvigorated his commitment to the sport, and to establishing a high-performance culture with teammate Joseph Deng, Rinaldi, and the Fast 8 Track Club (F8TC).  

“When Peter first moved [to Melbourne], he thought he could get away with just being really talented and not doing too much training,” says Rinaldi. “He now realises that if he wants to be one of the best in the world, he needs to be consistent with his training. And that doesn’t just mean having a few good weeks, you need to have months and months and months of good training. 

“He’s also started to believe in himself more — to believe he can be one of the best in the world.”   

Rinaldi’s hopes are sky-high.

“I think Peter and Joseph have the ability to be ranked, consistently, in that top 8 in the world. And once you start doing that, and you’re consistent, then if you have a good day and everything goes right, you can win a medal at the Olympics.” 

Justin Rinaldi
Rivals united by a common goal

Peter Bol and Joseph Deng look almost identical as they power down the home stretch, their bright orange Adidas spikes attacking the blue synthetic track at Sydney Olympic Park Athletic Centre. Both are wearing black racing suits, and matching each other stride for stride. At the line, there’s a dip, and barely a whisper between them.

These are Australia’s fastest 800m runners. And not only do they train together and share a sponsor, they also live in a shared flat. “It’s a pretty chill relationship,” Bol says of his teammate, and arguably his biggest domestic rival. “It definitely is competitive, but there are three spots [available for the Australian Olympic team in the 800m] and our confidence helps. We both believe we’ll get one of those three spots.”

On the track, and in the weight room and Pilates studio, the young men are strictly business. Off the track, they hang out at cafes and play FIFA like old pals. “We’re relaxed,” says Bol. “Once we’re off the track, we switch off.” One of the things that has allowed their friendship to blossom is a simple mantra, which Peter recites: “Leave pride aside.”

Coach Justin Rinaldi has enjoyed watching his two superstars cooperate and co-exist to lead the Fast 8 Track Club. “They both realise that if you want to be the best in the world, there’s no point worrying about being the best in Australia,” he explains. “Peter and Joseph realise that, together, they can help each other be better athletes; it’s pointless worrying about each other because they have other people in the world — from Kenya and America — they need to beat.”  But Rinaldi has seen rivalries in clubs turn sour before. “They manage it better than any other athletes I’ve seen,” he says. 

For Bol, it boils down to two things: speed and continual self-improvement. “At the end of the day, I want to be better. I want to get faster. I don’t want to lose, but if I lose to Joe and I still run a PB. So be it. That’s a fair loss.” 

Peter Bol with teammate Joseph Deng and coach Justin Rinaldi following a training session in Melbourne.
Peter Bol with teammate Joseph Deng and coach Justin Rinaldi following a training session in Melbourne. Photo supplied by Peter Bol. Credit: Adam Mckay

Covid-19 and a year interrupted 

For the Fast 8 Track Club, 2020 began with some stellar performances.

On February 22, Bol stormed to victory at the Sydney Track Classic, winning in 1:45.85. He was only four-tenths of a second ahead of Deng. A week later in Canberra, the pair had a similar — slightly faster — result. Bol won, but barely. 

The pair were close to being in the best shape of their lives, says Rinaldi, who points to a training session shortly after the Canberra race.

It was nine days from a meet in Brisbane, and about 16 days before the nationals were scheduled: “We did a couple 200s, and they were doing them fast, like 22 seconds. They both looked really relaxed. Then we did a 400, and they ran a 47-second lap.” 

Rinaldi didn’t need to see anything else. He cut the workout short. “They were ready, and there was nothing more I could’ve done on the day to make them any quicker.” 

“Following that session, we were talking about what we wanted to do. We were going to get the Olympic qualifier [in Brisbane] and maybe even the Australian record if the conditions were good. And then you get the news that the season is cancelled and the Olympics are postponed.”  

Justin Rinaldi

All the high-hopes, and the positive mind-sets, were instantly dashed. For Rinaldi, and his athletes, it was like entering a long, indefinite tunnel of uncertainty. Rinaldi told his athletes to take a few weeks off to reset. 

During that time, Bol flew back to Perth. With the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic and, later on, the mass social justice protests aimed at combating systemic racism and police brutality globally, he took comfort in being close to his family.  

“I think the time off was important to help him refocus, and to set new goals and have new targets,” says Rinalid.

But as a coach, he still had concerns for his athlete’s financial security. Professional running contracts are often contingent on performances, and athletes hitting agreed upon standards. With no events on the calendar, and a number of companies suffering from the economic fallout of the pandemic, it’s possible Bol — and many other pro runners — could see their endorsement earnings slashed.

One way to avoid that outcome is to get creative with self-promotion. In May, after Bol returned to Melbourne, his first unofficial race was a 3.8 km lap of the city’s iconic Botanical Gardens (affectionately known as The Tan).

The Melbourne Track Club (MTC) event had some of Australia’s best athletes, including Stewart McSweyn, Jack Rayner and Brett Robinson (all of whom paced Eliud Kipchoge during the INEOS 1:59 challenge). 

“When we were driving there, it felt like a training session,” says Bol. “But when we got there, and saw all the other guys, it was like, ‘Oh, this is real. This is a race’.” 

“I’ve never really gone into a race thinking, ‘I’m not going to win it’, or not having a goal to win it. But, like, the Tan?” Bol chuckles. “We knew it was really three races: Stewy, the rest of the MTC guys, and then us.” 

An 800m specialist, who only averages about 60 kms of running a week, Bol never expected to contend. But the hit-out nevertheless gave him confidence. He finished in 10:57, running at an average pace of 2:52/km (which is equivalent to a 14:20 5 km time) . 

“It was a 23 second PB off my last Tan race, and that was the same year I ran 1:44, so I’m happy with that,” he says.

Bol continued to showcase his impressive fitness, sharing videos of training sessions on his socials. In July, he clocked 2:17.78 in a 1000 m time trial, only narrowly missing Jeff Riseley’s Australian record of 2:16.09. A week later, he ran 1:30 in a 700 m time trial.

Bol needed to race. And then, something unexpected happened.

In early August, with Melbourne experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases and its residents living under stage four restrictions, an opportunity arose and Bol escaped to Europe. He’d been invited to compete in the shortened Wanda Diamond League series.

In his very first race — in Monaco — Bol ran a season’s best 1:44.96, which is technically faster than the Olympic standard. However, due to the postponement of the games, World Athletics suspended the qualification period. To book his ticket to Tokyo, Bol will need to meet the sub-1:45 standard a second time, between 1 December 2020 and 29 June 2021.

Continuing to fall in love with the sport of running

Bol isn’t worried about the Olympic qualifier: “Not to be arrogant or anything, but I hold myself to a higher standard and that should be almost automatic because of the work I’ve put in,” he tells RunCreature. “I fully expect to be at the Olympics.” 

He maintains that his focus, as always, is on training consistently, staying healthy, and staying ready. 

Come Tokyo, that readiness will look different than it did for Rio. This time around, it will almost certainly involve studying the competition, including athletes like the American phenom Donavan Brazier.

Somewhat ironically, Bol understands, from basketball, how studying film can help an already-elite athlete reach new heights.

He points to his idol, the late Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. Over the course of his career, Bryant increasingly modelled his game on that of Michael Jordan, meticulously studying film, and learning to mimic Jordan’s signature moves, down to the most granular detail and tendency.

“The only way you learn that is just repetition, repetition, repetition. Practice the same thing, from the same spot,” says Bol. “I like that.”

It’s exactly the kind of thing he’s striving for with his running: consistency, and becoming automatic.

Rinaldi agrees that studying film is a crucial ingredient to Bol’s continued progress, but says it needs to be approached with the right mentality.

“It’s a fine line,” he says. “You can be a student of the sport, and you can end up being in awe of the athletes standing on the start line next to you. Or you can be a student of the sport and know all their weaknesses and know the best way to beat them. We want to be able to exploit their flaws.” 

Rinaldi knows running was never his athlete’s first choice; but it’s a choice he’s begun to more readily embrace. “I think Peter realises that his talent is track and field. That’s why he’s slowly falling in love with it.”

“I have no doubt that Peter — if he stays committed 100 per cent and he has that belief in himself — he can make an Olympic final,” says Rinaldi. “And if he ended up winning a medal, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

For his part, Bol is all in: “I used to think about a lot of things. Now it’s all running.”

One thing is certain; the next time he toes the line for Australia, Peter Bol will recognise his competition; he’ll know their names, their moves, their tendencies, and their flaws. And if they’ve done their homework, they’ll most definitely know his name, too. 

Want more? Check out the RunCreature interviews with Peter Bol and his coach Justin Rinaldi.

Myles Gough

Myles Gough

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